I have been to the South Street Seaport dozens of times over the years and can’t believe that I never noticed this memorial dedicated to those lost in the Titanic disaster. I was visiting the Seaport recently after finishing another walk down the length of Broadway for my blog, “MywalkinManhattan.com” and was walking past the Seaport on my way to Chinatown. Something about it this time caught my attention and I stopped to look at the dedication of this small lighthouse.
It was really touching to see that the people from the 1912 disaster were not forgotten in New York City, its ultimate destination. This was the work of Molly Brown, the ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown’ from the movie. She wanted to be sure that the people who survived were never forgotten. The small lighthouse structure sits at the entrance to the main part of the seaport on an island just off the cobblestone walkway into the complex.
The Memorial plaque on the lighthouse
The tower that it was originally placed a top of the Seamen’s Church Institute Building and it was put up for sale and demolished in 1965 and the small lighthouse memorial was donated to the South Street Seaport Museum. It was placed in its current location in 1976 (Friends of the Lighthouse).
The little lighthouse is a touching reminder of Manhattan’s connection to the event over 100 years ago. Try not to miss it when you are visiting the Seaport.
The history of the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse:
(This is from the Friends of the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse website)
On April 15th, 1913, one year after the sinking of the Titanic, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse and Time Ball, mounted atop the Seamen’s Church Institute, were dedicated to honor the passengers, officers and crew who perished in the tragedy. The dedicatory service opened with a hymn and prayer and then Rt. Rev. David h Greer, Bishop of New York, read the following lines of dedication:
“To the glory of Almighty God and in loving memory of those passengers, officers and crew who lost their lives in the foundering of the steamship, Titanic, on April 15, 1912, I, David Hummell Greer, Bishop of New York and president of the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York, do solemnly dedicate the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse Tower. As its light by night shall guide pilgrims and seafaring men from every clime into this port, so may they follow Him who is the Light of Life across the waves of this troublesome world to everlasting life and looking at noon toward this place to note the time of day, may they remember that our days pass as the swift ships and in view of the shortness and uncertainty of human life, strive to fulfill their duty well as the beat preparation for Eternity. Amen.”
The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse exhibited a fixed green light that could be seen throughout New York harbor and down as far as Sandy Hook. Five minutes before noon each day, a time ball would be hoisted to the top of a steel rod mounted atop the lighthouse and dropped at the stroke of twelve as indicated over the wires from Washington DC. According to The Lookout, the magazine of the Seamen’s Church Institute, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse would be a much needed daily reminder for ‘in a busy, carless city the average person so soon forgets’.
The Seamen’s Church Institute was established in 1834 and had announced plans for its new twelve story headquarters at South Street and Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan several years before the loss of the Titanic. The Flemish style building was meant to reflect new York’s Dutch origins and was to be crowned by a tower whose beacon would welcome incoming seamen. The cornerstone for the building was laid one day after the sinking of the Titanic and a week later the institute announced the lighthouse atop their building would be a memorial to the victims of the tragedy.
When I was touring Governors Island for my blog, “MywalkinManhattan.com”, I explored the Fort Jay complex which is located on the northern end of the island just past Castle Williams.
This fort is mostly in a state of ruin and is currently being restored at various stages all around the complex. The decorative entrance with its statuary is being cleaned and the entrance fixed on one side of the fort and the walls and some of the interior space is being repaired inside the fort.
This fort and Castle Williams were built to protect the City of New York between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. After that these forts fell out of use as the times and technology changed .
Now the fort is used for art exhibitions in some of the interior hallways and grass has grown over most of the walkways. Still it is interesting to walk along the pathways near the walls of the fort and see how they were once used. It is interesting to see how far we have progressed in warfare.
The History of Fort Jay:
Fort Jay is located on Governors Island in New York Harbor, one half-mile from the southern tip of Manhattan. No defensive works are known to have been erected on the island during its early history. Defensive earthen works were first erected on the highest point of Governors Island by Continental troops in 1775-76. The island and its fort were occupied by the British during the American Revolution until 1783, when it surrendered, along with several buildings to the Governor of New York.
More than ten years passed before renewed tensions with Great Britain resulted in funding from both the New York Legislature and the United States Congress in 1794 to reconstruct the works on Governors Island. This part of a larger national effort to fortify ports that later became known as the First American System of coastal fortifications.
Design of the New York Harbor defenses was assigned to French engineer Charles Vincent. The works on Governors Island had been completed by 1796, described in January of that year by the Secretary of War as “a fort made of earth and two batteries under its protection, partly lined with brick masonry, two air furnaces, a large powder magazine and a barrack for the garrison.”
Fears of a French invasion in 1797 resulted in a second phase effort funded by additional appropriations to complete and enhance the coastal fortifications, including those on Governors Island. The fort is said to have acquired the name “Fort Jay” in 1798 for John Jay, then the Governor of New York State. Governors Island and its fort were conveyed to the federal government two years later in 1800, by an Act of the New York State Legislature.
A plan of the fort as it existed that year shows it as a four-bastioned form surrounded by a ditch with a parapet having 51 embrasures, a gate and bridge on the east side and a large magazine in the northeast bastion. The fort was still incomplete and incapable of defense in 1802 according to a written report, although it was then equipped with a “handsome Gateway with a Corps de Garde” or guardhouse, that survives today.
Fort Jay had fallen into ruinous condition by 1806 when a second national campaign to strengthen the coastal defenses of the country, now known as the Second American System of fortifications, was implemented. This effort differed from the first by employing American engineers and using more durable masonry construction.
The engineer chosen to design and oversee the defenses of New York Harbor was Colonel Jonathan Williams, Chief Engineer of the Corps of Engineers and first Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. Reconstruction of Fort Jay, renamed Fort Columbus about this time, began in July 1806 and was completed by December 1809. The only components of the old fort judged worth saving were “the walled Counterscarp, the Gate, the Magazine and the Barracks,” according to Colonel Williams in a report dated November 1808.
The completed fort was described in a later report to Congress as “an enclosed pentagonal work, with four bastions of masonry, calculated for one hundred guns, fifty-five mounted with brick barracks for two hundred and thirty men, including officers. The earliest known plan of the completed fort is a plan by Joseph Mangin drawn in 1813.
The first significant repairs and alterations were made to Fort Columbus in the 1830’s, resulting in the overall appearance of the fort as it exists today. The stone retaining walls were extensively rebuilt at this time, including the scarp that was faced with granite and topped with a new brickwork parapet. The old magazine in the northeast bastion was demolished and replaced by four new magazines erected in the north ravelin. Finally, the four existing brick were replaced by four new barracks with flanking triangular structures and outdoor courtyards.
Later changes have been made to the barracks by the U.S. Army over the years, including interior remodeling and replacement of the flat roofs with hipped roofs in 1855-57, incorporated of five of the triangular buildings as additions in the 1860’s and 1898-99 and reconfiguration of the buildings as officers’ apartments in 1921-22 and again in the 1930’s. Paint was stripped from the exterior brick buildings in the 1930’s, the sodded glacis of the fort was converted to recreational use as a golf course by 1940 and the flagstaff was moved from the northwest bastion to the north ravelin by 1953.
Jurisdiction of Governors Island passed from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Coastguard in 1966. Improvements made by the Coast Guard to Fort Jay, whose name was officially reinstated in 1904, included expansion of the golf course; remodeling of the barracks with new kitchens, bathrooms, heating and electrical systems and storm windows and doors and erection of chain-link fencing on the glacis. Fort Jay sat vacant with minimal upkeep since the closure of the Coast Guard in 1997.
Fort Jay was recorded by the Historic American Buildings survey in 1934 and in 1982-83. The fort was individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It was included in a National Historic Landmark District designated in 1985 and a New York Historic District designated in 1996. The fort is also located within the boundaries of the Governors Island National Monument, established by Presidential Proclamations in 2001 and 2003.
(This information I credit to the National Park System-Division of Culture website)
I have toured Castle Williams several times when visiting Governors Island over the last two years. The fort sits at a strategic site on the island facing Manhattan. The fort was originally built to protect New York City from the British during the War of 1812. The British knowing that the City had been fortified for battle never attacked New York.
The tour takes place twice a day for about an hour and you tour the first two levels of the fort. There are all sorts of signs around to show the history of the fort and its uses over the years. The one thing they don’t like is you touching the walls as the fort is still pretty fragile.
The nicest part of the tour is the observation deck at the top of the fort and the views of the Lower Manhattan skyline. It is a spectacular view of the harbor. You can see by the view why the fort was built where it was built and for its purpose before the War of 1812.
It really is a treat to see how fortifications mattered for cities in this time of history in this country.
The History of Castle Williams:
Castle Williams is a circular defensive work of red sandstone on the west point of Governors Island in New York Harbor. It was designed and erected between 1807 and 1811. It was designed by the Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lieutenant Colonial Jonathan Williams for whom the fort was named after. It was considered a prototype for new forms of coastal fortification.
The castle was one component of a larger defensive system for the inner harbor that included Fort Jay and the South Battery on Governors Island, Castle Clinton at the tip of Manhattan, Fort Gibson at Ellis Island and Fort Wood, which is now the base of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. This system of forts came to be known as the Second American System of coastal defense and existed to protect harbors like the one in New York from British interference with American Shipping.
Its usefulness as a fort began to end in the 1830’s, so Castle Williams subsequently served as barracks for the island’s garrison and new and transient troops. The castle was then remodeled by the U.S. Army for use as a prison in various forms during the Civil War and through the first half of the 20th Century.
In 1901, Secretary of War Elihu Root, who worked hard to modernize the Army, made a commitment to preserve the castle and overruled army leaders who wanted to demolish both it and Fort Jay. By 1903, the castle was fitted up as a model, state of art prison facility. In 1947, extensive renovations were carried out with the wooden catwalks replaced by concrete enclosed walk ways, hiding the beautiful stone arches on the third level and resulting in the industrial appearance of the courtyard today. Castle Williams ceased operations as a military prison in 1965 just before the U.S. Army left Governors Island.
The Castle again faced a demolition challenge as Coast Guard officials in Washington DC, who took control of Governors Island in 1966, wanted to demolish it. Instead, the castle was remodeled as a youth community center with a nursery, meeting rooms for Scouts and clubs, a woodworking shop, art studios, a photography laboratory and a museum. By the late 1970’s, the community center moved to another location and the fort became the grounds-keeping shop for the Coast Guard base.
Over time, the roof failed and broken windows allowed serious water damage to occur inside the castle. In the mid-1990s, the roof was replaced and new windows stopped further water damage to the structure but the interior remains closed until it can be made safe for public access. The National Park Service proposes to stabilize and restore the castle and eventually provide access to the roof, allowing the public to admire the harbor and the modern skyline of the great city (this has since opened on my last visit).
Castle Williams was individually listed in the National Register of Historic Placed on July 31, 1972. It was recorded by the Historical American Buildings Survey in 1983. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and the New York City Landmarks Historic District in 1996. It has been part of the Governors Island National Monument by Presidential Proclamations signed in 2001 and 2003.
(This information was provided by the National Park System Division of Cultural Affairs).
The Castle has since opened for tourists and touring since my last visit in the summer of 2019.